Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court on December 3, 2021, arguing on behalf of media organizations that a Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling undermines the press’s vital role in informing the public about our nation’s courts and the development of domestic violence law in particular.
Four days after the clinic filed its amicus brief, the Puerto Rico Solicitor General issued a statement agreeing that the sealed recordings should be made public. Three days later, the chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court announced a new court watch program that will permit volunteers to observe some domestic violence proceedings.
The amicus brief supports a petition filed by the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access clinic on behalf of the Asociación de Periodistas de Puerto Rico (the Puerto Rico Journalists Association). The petition seeks review of a high-profile domestic violence case that resulted in widespread public protests in Puerto Rico. Those protests came on the heels of the discovery of Andrea Cristina Ruiz Costas’ partially burned body and a confession by her ex-boyfriend. Shortly before her murder, Ms. Costas had unsuccessfully sought protection from Puerto Rican courts, who thrice denied her requests. When the Yale clinic sought access to the recordings of the proceedings in the trial court, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court denied access to all domestic violence proceedings and records without any opportunity to brief or argue for the right of access.
Following the solicitor general’s recent statement supporting unsealing and the chief justice’s statement announcing a court watch program, the Yale Clinic requested that the court grant certiorari (vacate the decision below), and remand with instructions to consider whether a court rule at issue, as construed by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, violates the First Amendment right of access.
The amicus brief the Cornell clinic filed argues that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision’s blanket closure of civil domestic violence proceedings is out of step with the presumptive openness of the vast majority of these proceedings nationwide and with a long tradition of access to their historical counterpart, divorce proceedings.
“This decision denies the press and the public an opportunity to fulfill their essential role of holding the judiciary accountable for the failure to protect domestic violence victims. Shrouding domestic violence proceedings in secrecy would make it impossible for the public to effectively campaign for what may be much-needed legal reforms,” said Heather Murray, Managing Attorney of the Clinic’s Local Journalism Project.
“Journalists routinely rely on domestic violence records and access to judicial proceedings in their reporting. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s decision closing all domestic violence proceedings hampers journalists’ ability to do their jobs,” Clinic Director Mark Jackson said. Clinic students Tim Birchfield and Ashley Stamegna, Clinic Associate Director Jared Carter, Jackson, and Murray worked on the amicus effort.
If the petition is ultimately successful, journalists will win access to Puerto Rico domestic violence proceedings.